I read yesterday that Seth Myers is planning a reboot of The Munsters for NBC, and in this new version the Universal monster family won’t be living in the suburbs but in a trendy Brooklyn hipster neighborhood where the characters will struggle to fit in with decade-old hipster stereotypes. I’m not entirely sure that this will work as well as Myers hopes, and I get that the show revolves around the Munsters because they are an NBC Universal property. However, the plot might better fit the rival Addams Family, who are, basically, hipsters a half century too early. Consider: The Addams Family have an eclectic and retro fashion sense. They collect antiques and oddities, and they prefer handmade artisanal products to anything mass produced. They distrust Western medicine and prefer shamans and natural cures. They eat exotic foods from foreign cultures and practice Eastern meditation techniques. They favor wetland preservation and flirt with homeschooling. By today’s standards, their “normal” neighbors, who recoiled in fear, are now the odd ones. I’m not sure the Munsters will fit the template quite as well without some serious retrofitting. After all, they only looked bizarre; in every other respect they aspired to be as boring as the Addams’s neighbors.
But what really got my goat yesterday was a terrible article that a physicist published in Slate magazine decrying science as a biased tool of white male power, a system of belief that systematically portrays itself as objective while denigrating the special ways of knowing of women and minorities. Basically, it was the usual postmodern bullshit raised to another level because the author is herself a scientist and somehow thinks her own discipline is a useless tool of evil white men.
The problem is that Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a particle physicist who is also an activist for minority participation in science, seems to purposely misunderstand what science is in order to create “science,” a semi-fictitious faith-based ideology of the elite that bears only a partial resemblance to the traditional definition of science. In short, she mistakes the sociocultural uses and applications of scientific research for the actual practice of scientific research itself. This is something she pretty much admits in the nut graf of her article: “Science’s greatest myth is that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting. In fact, science has often made its living from encoding and justifying bias, and refusing to do anything about the fact that the data says something’s wrong.” Note the mistaken use of science as the subject of the sentence, as though it were an active, living organism with thoughts and ideas. Science does not make a living or try to justify bias; bad or biased scientists certainly do, but to say so is to admit that science is not at fault but the sociocultural beliefs of the people who use it.
To put it another way: Imagine a chainsaw. We can use it to clear a forest, which is destructive but often necessary. We can use it to shape bushes into topiary, which is unnecessary but often beautiful. Or Leatherface can use it to turn teenagers into luncheon meat. It does not follow to therefore argue that the chainsaw “makes its living from turning teenagers to luncheon meat, and refusing to do anything about the fact that the resulting sandwiches taste bad.” One might imagine that Leatherface is more to blame than the chainsaw, and racist and sexist old white male scientists than the science itself.
Prescod-Weinstein is of that postmodern liberal school that thinks that political advocacy for liberal causes is fair and unbiased, but any other attitude is by definition biased. The hypocrisy is such that it takes away from her actual good point: She claims, beneath intemperate language, that scientists should be forced to study the cultural context in which science is practiced, to understand how cultural attitudes toward race, class, and gender and have shaped the type of research questions scientists have asked and how they have skewed the results, either unconsciously or through purposeful bias, to conform to those attitudes. We have seen this time and again in looking at how Victorian scientists somehow ended up with anthropological and biological results that confirmed the necessity of white supremacy and imperial conquest. But Prescod-Weinstein doesn’t see this as a lesson to be learned to correct current practices but rather as evidence that science itself is fundamentally flawed unless scientific education becomes an adjunct of liberal politics:
It is the rare scientific education that includes a simultaneous conversation about the rise of violent, imperialist globalization during the same time period. Very few curricula acknowledge that some European scientific “discoveries” were in fact collations of borrowed indigenous knowledge. And far too many universally call technology progress while failing to acknowledge that it has left us in a dangerously warmed climate.
The problem with her argument here is that imperialism, climate change, etc. are not issues that science can opine upon in terms of judging whether they are “good” or “bad.” They are moral and ethical issues, to be sure, and science can evaluate the consequences of specific choices humans make, but it cannot tell us whether to consider the results good or bad. The other point about Europeans stealing indigenous knowledge is another ambiguous bit of liberal fantasy, mixing together genuine instances when non-white peoples contributed directly to Euro-American scientific and technological development with fantasy claims more closely aligned with pseudoscientific fringe history. Her pronouncement that Europeans uniformly stole these without acknowledgement oversimplified a very complex story to score political points. But even at face value, the origin of scientific data should not affect whether they are true and can be replicated and confirmed. It is of political and cultural interest, but it is not an arbiter of truth.
The article makes many more bad points, but I will leave those for you to discover.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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